A Souplantation restaurant — one of 44 in California, including 11 in San Diego. Photo via Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp.

Social media choked on news Thursday that San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurants Corp. was permanently closing its Souplantation restaurants.

The self-serve buffet chain has been a San Diego institution since 1978. Its sister chain Sweet Tomatoes also is shutting down.

The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood as citing FDA guidance that included discontinuing self-serve stations, like self-serve beverages in fast food, “but they specifically talked about salad bars and buffets.”

“The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen,” he told the paper. “And I’m not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it. We could’ve overcome any other obstacle, and we’ve worked for eight weeks to overcome these intermittent financial challenges but it doesn’t work if we are not allowed to continue our model.”

Late Thursday, Haywood offered a sliver of hope, telling NBC San Diego: “We’ve engaged in bankruptcy counsel to explore the best option for our company.”

The shutdown was first a rumor — sparked by Sandiegoville.com, which said the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the chain to convert a temporary closure since mid-March to permanent status.

“I have worked at Garden Fresh Restaurants … since my last semester in college,” said a Facebook post (since deleted) by a Garden Fresh marketing project manager. “I honestly thought I was going to retire there, but due to the recent COVID 19 pandemic we have exhausted all options to remain a viable company. What we had hoped was just a temporary closure is now permanent. I am heartbroken that my career (and all other 5,000 employees careers) has come to such an abrupt end.”

Sandiegoville.com, which quoted the manager, removed the employee’s name from its story. Soon the news was on Wikipedia — which referred to Souplantation in the past tense.

The last official statement from Garden Fresh came March 16 from CEO Haywood, who posted: “Because of the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic, a reopening date will be announced at a later time…. Our commitment to our guests and team members remains as dedicated as ever and we look forward to serving you again shortly.”

But in a tweet Friday, Souplantation said goodbye to its customers and 4,400 employees.

Garden Fresh, which grew out of a first Souplantation on Mission Gorge Road in Grantville, didn’t respond to Times of San Diego requests for comment. The chain’s store locator listed 11 locations in San Diego County.

In 2017, Garden Fresh announced Haywood as its new CEO after roles at Black Angus Steakhouses, celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace and Metromedia Restaurant Group.

John Haywood leads San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurants. Photo via Garden Fresh

Called a “hospitality turnaround specialist,” Haywood would be tasked with running a 97-location company emerging from bankruptcy following its purchase by Cerberus Capital Management of New York, Garden Fresh said.

“John is the perfect guy to take our unique brands to the next level,” said Gene Baldwin, former interim CEO of Garden Fresh and member of the Board of Directors. “He has a keen understanding of consumer insights, culinary trends, and operations management in addition to the financial acumen it takes to succeed in today’s challenging environment.”

On Eater San Diego, Candice Woo wrote: “Although Souplantation may have been long past its heyday, the eateries were still a comforting, affordable dining option for much of America. And if a restaurant company of its size and resources can’t make it, what hope is there for everyone else?”

Sewell Chan of the Los Angeles Times savored the clientele.

“Souplantation was less striking for its feint at healthfulness — who knows whether those calorie counts on its websitee were entirely accurate — than for its egalitarianism,” Chan wrote in a touching tribute.

“Its dining rooms truly were a democratic space, packed with toddlers, adolescents, harried parents, the elderly — everyone, in short, other than the 20- to 30-somethings who typically define tastes in a late-capitalist society.”

Meanwhile, fans of the restaurant chain were mourning yet another cultural loss.

Updated at 10:51 p.m. May 10, 2020

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